Power Plants – What are their environmental and public health impacts?

Electricity generation in the United States comes from power plants running on fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, coal), nuclear, and renewable sources of energy (hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermal and biomass).


Lori Sonken

Jan 12, 2023 • Updated Jan 25, 2023 • 4 min read
Industrial Hazards

Electricity generation in the United States comes from power plants running on fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, coal), nuclear, and renewable sources of energy (hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermal and biomass). About 80% of the plants in the U.S. are fueled with nonrenewable sources that emit air and water pollutants impacting the environment and public health, and release greenhouse gasses contributing to global warming. Power plants running on clean energy also have environmental impacts but renewable sources, with the exception of biomass, generate less pollution.

Do Power Plants Cause Pollution?#

Nationwide, there were more than 11,000 utility-scale electric power plants with electricity generating capacity of at least 1 megawatt, as of 2020. Coal, gas, and oil-fired power plants generate 61 percent of the energy in the U.S., and nuclear about 19 percent.

Coal, gas, and oil-fired power plants release air pollutants, including sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and carbon dioxide. Many do not have advanced pollution control equipment and emit harmful poisons, including mercury, other toxic metals, acid gasses and organic air toxics such as dioxin.

Coal combustion produces wastes, such as ash, that contaminate waterways and drinking water, and contributes to acid rain. Coal-fired plants also are the largest contributor of mercury into the environment. Even small quantities affect waterways where the pollutant can be absorbed by organisms, fish, and shellfish – some of which may ultimately be consumed by people. 

Natural gas power plants emit about half as much carbon dioxide as coal-fired plants, and no mercury, but they contribute to ground and surface water pollution during extraction methods, such as fracking. Natural gas plants also release methane, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and is considered an important contributor to climate change.

All power plants – even those using renewable fuels – impact the environment. Hydroelectric plants kill fish; solar farms reduce cultivable farmlands, disturb wildlife, and use toxic materials during the construction of photovoltaic systems; burned biomass pollutes the air, and wind farms can be noisy and cause bird mortalities. However, there is a growing interest in transitioning to renewable fuels which, except for biomass, emit fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases than fossil fuel-fired power plants.

 

Are Power Plants Safe?#

The power sector has significantly reduced many of these pollutants over the past two decades, but important health and environmental concerns persist, according to the EPA. Fossil fuel-fired plants still release harmful gases and pollutants that can lead to heart or lung diseases, including asthma and bronchitis, susceptibility to respiratory and cardiac symptoms, pregnancy complications, increased hospital visits and, even, death. A 2012 study showed the hospitalization rate for those living in the same zip code as a fossil-fuel fired plant was 11 percent higher than normal for those with asthma, 15 percent for those with an acute respiratory infection, and 17 percent higher for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Studies have shown that children living near power plants are more vulnerable to air pollution effects and suffer more respiratory problems than adults. A 2021 study found that children residing within 10 miles of coal-fired power plants had elevated levels of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and social problems. Other studies have connected coal-fired power plants with neurodevelopmental conditions such as delayed language and motor skills.

Natural gas-fired plants emit nitrogen oxides linked to respiratory problems and release volatile organic compounds. These emissions can interact with other substances in the air to produce particulate matter and ozone (smog) sometimes leading to shortness of breath, heart attacks, and premature death.

Fossil fuel-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the air.  Because mercury can travel thousands of miles in the atmosphere before it is re-deposited back to the earth through rainfall or gas, almost everyone worldwide has at least trace amounts of mercury in their tissues.

Health experts have concerns that uncontrolled releases of mercury from power plants – there are no federal air pollution standards -- can damage children’s developing nervous system and reduce their ability to think and learn. There are other toxic metals released by fossil-fuel fired power plants, including arsenic, chromium, and nickel that cause cancer. Children and the elderly may be susceptible to acid gases causing asthma, bronchitis, and other chronic respiratory diseases.

Nationwide, there are advisories recommending people of all ages not consume fish and shellfish, contaminated by mercury mixing with water to create methylmercury, in freshwater lakes. A powerful neurotoxin, methylmercury can cause loss of peripheral vision, “pins and needles” feelings in hands and feet, muscle weakness, impaired coordination, and compromised speech, walking, and hearing. Infants exposed to methylmercury in the womb can suffer impacts to their cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine motor skills and visual-spatial skills.

The highest mercury concentrations are generally found in large fish that eat other fish, according to the EPA. In their advice about eating fish, the EPA and Food and Drug Administration recommend those who might become pregnant, as well as those who are pregnant, breastfeeding and children under age 11 avoid consuming king mackerel, shark, swordfish and marlin, among other large fish, due to high mercury levels.   

In 2007, the Panel on Health Risks and the Toxicological Effects of Methymercury found that “...to preserve human health, all efforts need to be made to reduce and eliminate sources of exposure.” 

Many fossil fuel-fired power plants, especially coal, are more than 40 years old and facing closure. In some states – New York for example – no coal-fired plants remain operating. As coal-fired plants retire, there are concerns about what to do with coal and fly ash – waste products generated during combustion and stored in landfills and surface impoundments -- after the plant stops operating. Coal and fly ash include heavy metals like dioxin, as well as neurotoxic metals, such as arsenic, mercury, and lead. These storage sites can generate fugitive dust exceeding federal National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particulate matter and expose neighboring populations to public health impacts. If not in properly lined tanks, ash residue can make its way into waterways.

 

Property Values#

Power plants located close to homes decrease property values, according to several reports. The March 2016 edition of Realtor showed that having a power plant in the neighborhood is associated with a 5.3 percent drop in property values. A 2013 report found that homes within two miles of a power plant experienced a 4-7 percent drop in value. A 2011 study reported that neighborhoods within two miles of power plants experienced 3–7 percent decreases in housing values and rents, with some evidence of larger decreases within 1 mile of large-capacity plants.

As coal plants retire, their generating capacity may be replaced by natural gas or clean energy, such as wind and solar. Closing fossil fuel-fired plants could have impacts on the surrounding communities, and property values, depending on how the facility is ultimately used.  A 2022 study found that switching a plant from coal to natural gas resulted in increased property values of 12-20 percent. 

 

What You Can Do#

AreaHub.com offers resources on air pollutionwater quality and pollution and industrial hazards in the Knowledge Center. 

There also are a number of publicly available databases to track pollution. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Power Plants and Neighboring Communities Mapping Tool identifies a community’s potential susceptibility to environmental exposures from combustion (coal, oil, natural gas and biomass) power plants connected to the grid and generating 1MW or more within a 3-mile radius as well as planned coal and natural gas power plant retirements through 2030. It is a starting place to identify potential sources of pollution that may impact air quality by address or town. The mapping tool provides information about types of fuels used, plant ownership and capacity, plant emissions, fine particulate matters, volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants.  The tool also tracks environmental health issues in the surrounding area and key demographics of those living near the power plants. 

Another EPA tool, eGRID, shows fuel use, emissions, emission rates and other environmental characteristics of electric power generated in the U.S. by zip code. This site shows fuel sources for energy in your area as well as emission rates. EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online tracks facilities – by zip code, state, or county – and their compliance with federal regulations over time.

The Centers for Disease Control’s National Environmental Tracking Network provides data and information, such as unhealthy levels of ozone and particulate matter, by county.  

To find out more about power plants in your area, check with state (see EPA listing of resources) and local government officials, as well as community organizations, and inquire what they know about a facility’s performance, including whether it complies with federal, state, and local laws as well as any increases and reductions in emissions over time.

For information about the toxicity of fish caught in particular waterways, inquire with those on EPA’s list of state, territory and tribe fish advisory contacts.  

Get in touch with power plant operators and ask what they are doing to address emissions, improve pollution prevention strategies and protect public health and the environment. Questions to ask include, does the power plant have air monitors in its smokestacks; what do the monitors show? Has the operator reached out to other companies that may have developed best practices to reduce or eliminate pollution?

 

Sources#

Find information for climate, natural, and environmental hazards in the United States with a free AreaHub report. In just a few seconds, access data about 18 potential dangers in your area, like severe floods, toxic waste sites and more.

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